It has been hailed in some Brexiteer circles as a backdown by Dublin and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, but Leo Varadkar’s admission that there is room for softening post-Brexit trade rules is unlikely to bring joy to hardliners in Belfast and Westminster.
The Taoiseach seemed to have entered 2023 a new man with the new year’s resolution of being “flexible and reasonable” in order to solve issues with the Protocol which have enraged the Democratic Unionist Party and partly led to the shutdown of the Stormont parliament.
“One thing I have said in the past is that, when we designed the protocol, when it was originally negotiated, perhaps it was a little bit too strict,” Varadkar, who became Taoiseach for the second time in December, told reporters at a briefing in Dublin.
Conceding that the UK’s decision to abandon full-fledged checks on goods including fresh food at Northern Irish ports had not brought an uncontrolled flood of goods into Ireland, as the EU feared, he added: “We’ve seen that the protocol has worked without it being fully enforced. And that’s why I think there is room for flexibility and room for changes, and we’re open to that and up for that, and I know from speaking to [the European Commission] president [Ursula] von der Leyen and [vice-president] Maroš Šefčovič, that’s their position too,”
Varadkar’s comments, which seem to lay the groundwork for the acceleration of talks between the EU and the UK over the Brexit arrangements he agreed with former prime minister Boris Johnson back in October 2019, were hailed as a “positive move” by Johnson’s former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith and retweeted by current Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, a former leader of the ERG.
John Redwood also tweeted about Varadkar’s admission that “we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit… there was no road map, no manual”. But the veteran Brexiteer spun this as, “Ireland now admits they and the EU made mistakes with the Northern Ireland Protocol disrupting GB to NI trade and damaging the UK Union”, and went on to ask: “So will the EU now end its intransigence and drop the Protocol?”
And this is the key problem for the Brexit true believers. Both the UK government and the EU are eager to make progress on a Protocol compromise that will ensure a visit by Joe Biden to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and the prospect of a Stormont restart are both kept alive. Dublin and Brussels can agree to soften the Protocol, but Rishi Sunak would have to agree to keeping the Protocol itself.
And that will not be enough for Redwood and others in the DUP and ERG. They do not want goods coming into Northern Ireland to have to comply with EU regulations, as they do now, or for governance of the deal to be overseen by the European Court of Justice, as it is now.
In short, they want the Protocol gone and not tweaked. Not only will they reject any sort of compromise but will view any attempt to effect one – starting with taking Liz Truss’ Northern Ireland Protocol bill, which would allow the UK to alter the Protocol unilaterally – off the table as betrayal.
Varadkar may have handed Sunak and the Brexiteers an olive branch, but they could easily use it to beat the prime minister.